I confess that I was predisposed to like Ajanta. I've eaten there before and always had good experiences. But I tried to look at it with fresh eyes and fresh taste buds.
As soon as you walk in, you know it's not your run-of-the-mill lunch spot. The Ajanta cookbook lying on a table at the entrance hints at the possibilities ahead of you, and the white tablecloths beneath full place settings promise an elegant dining experience.
But the real test of a restaurant, after all, is its food. Soon after we were seated, we were served crispy papadam and a fresh cilantro sauce, both good. Dave got a lunch special that came with an appetizer, so I got to try his samosa, which was delicious and perfectly cooked. George had bheh khumbi, a vegan dish with lotus root, shiitake mushrooms, and peas, which he'd had before and loved. (George is a regular customer there and chats easily with the owner.)
I ordered one of the dishes under the "New this month" section—chicken biriyani. It was organic boneless chicken in a curry sauce over rice with nuts, golden raisins, chickpeas, and caramelized onions. So many wonderful distinct flavors that complemented each other perfectly! I don't even know what was in the delightfully spicy sambal that accompanied my meal, but it sure was tasty. I felt as if I got quite a feast for only $10.
I don't eat lamb, but Dave loved his lamb rib chop. (Though I thought the portion seemed a tad small for $13.) There were more dessert options than I'm used to seeing in an Indian restaurant, but I'm trying to take off those extra holiday pounds, so I didn't order dessert. However, Dave got the mango mousse, so of course I had a few bites. It was refreshing, light, and not too sweet.
The service was excellent. I am granting them bonus points for refilling my water glass three times without my ever having to ask.
The lunch portions are slightly smaller and less expensive than dinners, but otherwise the menus are identical. Ajanta features cuisine from all over India and regularly updates its menu with new dishes but always has the popular standards as well. Because its offerings are extensive, the take-out menu I requested to take home had to use type normally reserved for the fine print of contracts, so be sure to get out your magnifying glass before attempting to read it. But the in-house menus are much bigger and easy to read. Although I caught a few typos, they weren't egregious or confusing.(If I've seen the plural of entrée written "entrée's" once, I've seen it a thousand times...)
It is green certified, which definitely boosts its appeal as far as I'm concerned. This is Berkeley, after all. And the bathroom was clean and lovely.
When the check came, Dave was delighted to find individually wrapped toothpicks on the tray. Dave is easily pleased.
Ah, Ajanta, don't ever leave us.